Experience Authentic El Salvador on the Flowers Route

With a rich baritone voice and worn cowboy hat, the sun-weathered singer glides between picnic tables tightly packed with chatty families. The music builds. Grills sizzle with Salvadoran cuisine. The mouthwatering scent of it all drifts through the crowd, carried by cool mountain air that sweeps down in waves from the coffee-carpeted volcanoes above.

This is a typical day in Juayúa, a small town with a whitewashed church and waterfall-strewn outskirts—the most popular destination along a beautifully paved, 40-mile (63-km) road through western El Salvador’s coffee-growing highlands. It’s called Ruta las Flores, or the Flowers Route, so named for the colorful orchids and other tropical blossoms that line the road. And traversing it is one of the best ways to experience the unique qualities of El Salvador.

Experience Authentic El Salvador on the Flowers Route

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With a rich baritone voice and worn cowboy hat, the sun-weathered singer glides between picnic tables tightly packed with chatty families. The music builds. Grills sizzle with Salvadoran cuisine. The mouthwatering scent of it all drifts through the crowd, carried by cool mountain air that sweeps down in waves from the coffee-carpeted volcanoes above.

This is a typical day in Juayúa, a small town with a whitewashed church and waterfall-strewn outskirts—the most popular destination along a beautifully paved, 40-mile (63-km) road through western El Salvador’s coffee-growing highlands. It’s called Ruta las Flores, or the Flowers Route, so named for the colorful orchids and other tropical blossoms that line the road. And traversing it is one of the best ways to experience the unique qualities of El Salvador.

The route winds past six small Spanish Colonial towns with deep indigenous roots, built around beautiful churches and shady central squares. The towns’ adobe walls are painted with murals, and the surrounding countryside filled with natural treasures: hot springs, waterfalls, crater lakes, coffee fincas, and beautiful views. Nearby, travelers can enjoy a dozen less-traveled towns that are just as lovely, as well as Los Volcanes and El Imposible national parks.

Ruta las Flores officially begins in the busy city of Sonsonate, 40 miles (64 km) due west of San Salvador and 16 miles (25 km) from the beautiful beach of Los Cóbanos. You can drive it in an hour, but take your time—spend at least a day, preferably with an overnight along the way. Dozens of operators offer tours along the Flowers Route, but public buses are inexpensive, relatively easy to navigate, frequent, and flashy (you can’t miss the paint jobs). And any hotel can help you hire taxis to less-accessible destinations.

The region has some of the best-developed tourist infrastructure in El Salvador, and even folks with limited Spanish skills will be able to get around without too much trouble. It’s a great place to begin your inland exploration of El Salvador. Here’s what you’ll see.

Nahuizalco

The first official stop on the Ruta las Flores is the small, proudly indigenous village of Nahuizalco—an artsy, unassuming pueblo best known for its traditional baskets and woven tule reed handicrafts. Local guides can take you on hikes around the countryside and to Golondrinera Waterfall. It’s a fine place to stop during the day, but no matter where you stay along the route, try to make it back for their night market. Lit with candles and lamps, it’s a romantic spot for an inexpensive dinner.

Salcoatitán

A few minutes down the road, Salcoatitán is a tiny, picturesque roadside town built around a lovely 1824 church and adorable park decked out in mosaic tiles. Shopping and dining could keep you here for a couple hours.

Juayúa

This gleaming, whitewashed Spanish Colonial town, surrounded by enormous volcanoes, is the star attraction on the Ruta las Flores for several reasons. First, its weekend Fería Gastronomica (Food Festival) features live music, handicrafts, a tourist train, and lots of stands serving the best Salvadoran cuisine. Plus, Juayúa’s cobblestone streets are lined with amazing murals, excellent hotels and delightful restaurants. It’s even an ecotourism center, offering hiking, swimming, waterfalls, and hot springs.

All of this makes Juayúa the perfect base for travelers eager to explore western El Salvador’s ancient towns, epic national parks, and other destinations. English is widely spoken and people from all over the world are waiting to join you on the next adventure.

If you’re headed to Volcanoes National Park, ask your guide to stop in Los Naranjos. It’s not officially on the Flowers Route, but its spectacular views and exceptional cuisine are worth your time.

Apaneca

Quaint and colorfully detailed, some of the old adobe homes in this coffee-growing town date to 1524, when the Spanish first began building up the ancient Mayan Pipil town of Apaneca. The name means “River of Winds,” and sure enough, cool breezes sweep down from a patchwork quilt of coffee and cacao just above this, the route’s highest village (4,823 ft/1,470 m).

Most travelers visit for the rush of adrenaline provided by zip-line canopy tours or the quiet trails to Laguna Verde, Laguna las Ninfas, or Cascadas Don Juan in nearby Jujutla. But be sure to spend some time exploring Apaneca itself—it’s one of the prettiest towns in El Salvador.

Ataco

Come here for the murals, arguably the finest collection in Central America. Many were painted by the proprietors of the famous Diconte & Axul, a handicrafts store featuring traditional treadle looms.

Ataco isn’t as heavily touristed as Juayúa, but stunning views, Colonial architecture, and beautifully decorated restaurants and hotels make it a great place to stay along the Flowers Route. While here, climb to the Mirador de la Cruz del Cielito Lindo for views across the city and countryside, take hikes and coffee tours, or just simply wander.

Ahuachapán

Your final stop on the Ruta las Flores is the prosperous department capital of Ahuachapán, just 6 miles (10 km) from the Las Chinamas border crossing to Guatemala and convenient to Guatemala City and Antigua. This bustling little city makes its living with coffee and geothermal energy, not tourism, but the friendly Spanish Colonial city center, replete with plazas and fountains, features several places to stay.

Ahuachapán is a jumping-off point for the tiny town of Tacuba, El Imposible National Park, the restaurants lining Laguna de las Espinas, and the best hot springs resort in El Salvador. It’s a perfect finish to your trip.